Spike's Secret to Success

A dog's motivation for change

- Posted on Feb 17, 2011

Spike made personal growth

I stood on the front porch, finger poised at the doorbell.

Just what am I letting myself in for here? I wondered.

I’d never been to Brian’s house before. Friends at church had set us up and I liked him right away. We’d had our first date a few weeks before—an afternoon coffee that we extended to dinner. We had so much in common—similar upbringings, the same love of faith and family. We were both in our late thirties and, more to the point, we’d both had disappointing first marriages. Mine had ended almost a decade earlier. Brian had been divorced two years. I thought we’d been given the miraculous gift of a second chance.

When my grandson was having problems with relationships in a new job, I knew right where to send him—the Guideposts website, where he’d be able to read the work of Dr. Norman Vincent Peale. My grandson is finding it helpful not only at work but in his relationships in general.               - JANE C., Cumming, Georgia

There was one hiccup: Spike, Brian’s seven-year-old rat terrier. I hadn’t met Spike yet, but I might as well have. Brian spoke of him often. “He was my security blanket through the divorce,” Brian explained on our first date. “You’ll love him. Trust me.”

Well, I liked dogs, but what was I supposed to say when Brian told me Spike might be so excited to see me he’d pee on my leg? Or that I shouldn’t worry if there were pauses in our conversation because he had to throw Spike’s squeaky toy? “I wouldn’t want him to feel left out,” Brian said. Hmm, I thought. Who’s going to feel left out?

I pushed the bell. Footsteps. Scrabbling paws. The door opened. “Hi!” Brian said. A black-and-white streak raced around my ankles, sniffing every inch of my shoes. I held my breath. No accidents. Spike looked up, his tail wagging a hundred miles an hour. A toy frog dangled from his mouth. Spike gave the frog a squeeze. Squeak.

“He likes you!” Brian exclaimed. “Come on in.” Brian got to work on dinner—shrimp and rice. Spike positioned himself between us in the kitchen. “How are your classes going?” Brian asked. I’m an elementary-school teacher. I was about to answer when Spike gave his frog another squeeze. Squeak.

“Hang on,” said Brian. He took the toy from Spike’s mouth and hurled it into the living room. Spike rocketed past and a moment later returned, frog clenched between his jaws. “What a good dog you are!” Brian said, laughing. I started talking about a student of mine. The frog whizzed by again. Spike’s paws clattered on the floor. Squeak. “What was that, Amy?” Brian asked. He threw the toy again.

By the time dinner was done we hadn’t gotten much past “hello.” Maybe Brian was nervous, I thought. I sure was! Yet, coming to his house made me realize just how much I wanted this relationship to work.

For years I’d been telling myself I didn’t mind being single. But, really, part of me was still just as hurt as I was that day my husband turned to me out of the blue and said, “Amy, I don’t want to be married anymore.” How long had he thought that? How long had I fooled myself into thinking he loved me? Could I ever trust love again? I looked at Brian across the table. He was busy feeding Spike some rice from his plate. Was I fooling myself about this relationship too?

We finished dinner and sat on the sofa to watch a movie. I caught a glimpse of Brian’s bedroom. Typical bachelor. Bed unmade, sheets everywhere. “Spike loves pulling the comforter off,” Brian laughed. “He hides toys in it and then digs them out.” I didn’t say anything, but I could almost feel myself pulling back. Spike wedged himself between us on the sofa and gave me a look. Brian stroked Spike’s head. I couldn’t help wishing that he’d put that hand over mine. When I finally stood to go, Brian gave me a hug. Spike emitted a low growl. Brian pulled away. “It’s okay, buddy,” he said. “It’s just Amy.”

We said goodnight and I drove back home. I was already asking myself if I, a self-proclaimed neat freak, could ever be okay with a dog who pulled covers off the bed, or with the little white hairs that coated every piece of furniture in Brian’s house.

Brian and I continued dating. I kept hoping the Brian I liked—handsome Brian with the great sense of humor and solid values—would somehow triumph over Brian, the obsessed owner of Spike. When we were at his house I hardly had a moment alone with him. He continually threw the toy for Spike. The dog came with us on trips, sticking his little head blissfully out the car window. And of course conversations were always accompanied by the squeaky-toy soundtrack. Brian began saying ominous things like, “Boy, if we ever got married it sure would be hard to kick Spike out of bed. What do you think about sleeping with a dog?” I told Brian I didn’t like the sound of that at all, but my words never seemed to register.

The breaking point came one late summer Sunday. We’d been dating five months by then. After church we went to Brian’s house to watch a movie. We dozed off on the sofa. A strange sensation on my chest woke me. I opened my eyes. Spike stood there, nose to nose with me, his mouth open, panting. He stared at me. Not a “please play fetch with me” kind of stare. More like, “I was here first. Remember that. I come with the deal.”

That was it. I heaved Spike off me and stood up. “Brian,” I said, startling him awake. “I want this to work, but I really need there to be some limits on Spike. Sometimes I feel there’s not enough room here for both him and me.”

I paused, hoping Brian would say the words I’d been longing to hear him say for months—“Amy, I had no idea; of course we’ll do something about Spike. I’d do anything for you!” But he didn’t say that. He mumbled the same old stuff about Spike being his best friend and always there for him. “Just take me home,” I said.

Brian didn’t even try to call right away. Good, I thought. I busied myself getting my classroom ready for the new school year. Marching around putting up posters, I thought of one outrage after another. The way Brian’s eyes lit up for Spike but not for me. All the times he petted Spike and didn’t even caress my hand. The dog toys all over the house! Spike begging at the table…and sleeping in the bed!

When the phone finally did ring I let the machine pick up. “Amy, I’m sorry,” Brian said. “Can we see each other again? I really want to explain. I think we can work this out.” I didn’t return the call. Brian left several more messages and sent e-mails. Finally I relented and agreed to meet him after church.

My expectations weren’t high. “Amy, what do I have to say to convince you? We’ll train Spike together.”

Cautiously I agreed. A few days later I was back at Brian’s house for dinner. The dog toys, I noticed, were put away and Spike kept to himself, gnawing on his frog toy in the hall. Once I caught him looking at me, his head cocked. “Don’t go away,” his liquid brown eyes now seemed to say. “He needs you.”

That night Brian made a surprising announcement. “I have to go out of town for a week for work,” he said. “What if you took Spike and started his training yourself?” I jumped at the chance. At last I’d see whether Spike really could change.

The first night didn’t go so well. I made a bed for Spike on my sofa and put up a baby gate blocking the stairs to my bedroom. Spike whined all night. I sat at the top of the stairs and reassured him. The next night he whined less. Even less the night after that. During the day I played fetch with him. When I firmly told him it was time for a break he flopped down on the sofa beside me. At dinner my refusals to let him beg seemed to work—mostly.

On our last night together we sat on the sofa watching TV. I looked down at Spike. We’d played a fast game of fetch and he was worn out. It felt good to have his warm little body tucked next to mine, I had to admit. I thought of all the years Spike and Brian had been together. All the games of fetch they’d played, the nights they’d spent listening to each other breathe. Suddenly a powerful emotion swept over me. Here, lying next to me, was a living image of the kind of love I’d yearned for from Brian. Openhearted, unconditional love. Love I could rely on. I’d spent the past decade mistrusting that kind of love. So much so that maybe I’d grown unwilling to give it myself.

Spike’s love is a little like your love, isn’t it, Lord? I knew God loved me without limits. And deep in my heart I longed to trust love again, to give of myself completely. Well, it was time. I picked Spike up and gave him a big hug. He sighed contentedly.

Brian came home from his trip and things went great. We married a few months later. That was five years ago. Spike’s older now—he’s 12. He has bouts of pain at night, so we don’t let him sleep alone. That’s right, Spike sleeps in our bed. Now I want to be close to him if he needs us in the night.

I thought Spike was going to pull Brian and me apart. Instead, he ended up bringing us together. Funny how that works, when you have faith and open your heart.

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